On November 8, the teachers and administrators at Cambridge Public Schools in Massachusetts reached a tentative agreement with the district. These educators are members of the Cambridge Education Association (CEA), and they were able to create organizing structures within their union and build mobilization like never before. Through this work, the CEA members secured significant gains and pushed through the district’s anti-union campaign, as well as generated momentum that will propel them into the next contract fight.
Celebrating the victories
One major win that the educators achieved is that the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), which is the state’s standardized testing program, will not be included as part of teacher evaluations. Another gain is an over 8% increase in pay to compensate for a thirty minute extension of the school day, on top of a 9% cost of living increase over a three year contract.
“[The district] has tried to extend the school day before, and the first time they offered [the educators] no pay raise. Just more hours,” said Chris Montero, a history teacher at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School and co-chair of the Contract Action Team (CAT). “This time, the tentative agreement has a raise that is more than proportional so people are getting a higher percentage of pay versus the percentage of time increase.”
Another difference between this and the previous contract cycle is that this time the CAT was organized from the beginning. This structure helped the union members grow their mobilization and increase the pressure they could put on the district.
“We were able to activate a lot more people,” said Montero. “We had a bunch of actions, including one at the beginning of the school year where we had total participation, everyone wearing red and walking in and walking out of the start of year festivities and not applauding for the superintendent. We held rank like never before.”
Defeating the anti-union campaign
This heightened discipline was necessary, because the district was using additional union-busting tactics against the educators in an attempt to continue to overwork and underpay them. The negotiation process went on for over a year, and included the district initiating mediation, which means they stopped meeting with the educators at the bargaining table and instead brought in a third party to communicate between them.
“When mediation was announced, it was a surprise,” said Alyssa Tyler, a math specialist at Rindge Avenue Upper School and co-chair of the CAT. “We felt there were still strides to be made at the table. Therefore it also felt like they were taking away our ability to talk face-to-face. We were losing agency in the bargaining sessions.”
This insulting move to mediation ended up backfiring on the school committee, as rather than put a damper on the spirits of the bargaining unit members, it motivated them to get even more organized.
“We said, if mediation is the hill you’re willing to die on, then we’re going to squeeze you for everything you have,” said Bella Sandoval, a history and government teacher at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School and a member of the CAT. “We’re going to push you and push you and push you.”
After mediation was announced, there were more members taking part in events and making connections with each other than before.
“When they pushed us for mediation, that’s when folks got fired up,” said Tyler. “We did a spring rally that brought out a lot of people in May. Over the summer we did a Paint the Town Red event, as well as movie nights to keep our community strong and the conversations going. A lot of the work was grassroots organizing, making sure that every building had representation and awareness of what was going on, and ability to share their thoughts. I think the one-on-one conversations we were really able to hone in on this fall were a big part of why a lot of members were invested.”
Another tactic the district has used to keep workers across the city underpaid is the use of their “me too” clause, through which the lowest cost of living adjustment (COLA) agreed to by any bargaining unit is applied to the rest of the units.
“For example, if any union determines a COLA of 2%, that’s binding for all the other unions. It’s a union busting tactic,” said Sandoval. “The COLA is determined by the least organized unit. For people who are chronically underpaid, 2% is better than 1.5%, and they may take it without realizing their power to ask for more. What we need to do now is organize so it’s not just the members of our bargaining team behind us, but all 1000 members in the union.”
Gearing up for the next fight
This is why the CAT for the teachers and administrators will not be disbanded even after the upcoming ratification vote on the tentative agreement. This organizing structure will be a tool for the entire union to stand in solidarity.
“The next fight is for the education support staff–the paraprofessionals, the clerks, and the substitute teachers. Our CAT team lives on,” said Sandoval. “It’s the first time since I’ve been here that we’re having conversations all across the units in the union. We’re asking, how do we mobilize people to show up for a unit that isn’t their own? We want to create a new culture. After having some hard conversations and the ratification vote, we’re going to channel all this energy into that fight. Their contracts impact our contracts.”
The education support staff members are particularly underpaid, with paraprofessionals in Cambridge having a starting salary of just $26,000 for full time work. This is in contrast to paraprofessionals in the neighboring city of Somerville, who in their last contract fight obtained a starting salary of $35,000.
“The idea is for our unit to support them. Not just because a higher COLA benefits everybody, but because [the paraprofessionals] work with the most vulnerable students. If they are not valued and don’t have a living wage, it makes their jobs harder. It makes schools harder to staff,” said Sandoval. “It gets back to why we all became teachers. We want to help students, we want to create better outcomes for students. We can’t do that if we don’t show up for our union. We have an obligation to show up for ourselves and our fellow workers.”
Standing together as one community
Besides maintaining and growing strong internal organizing structures during this bargaining cycle, the CEA members also had the wider Cambridge community backing them in their fight. One community member who attended two of the CEA rallies was Tahmid Rahman, who is a worker at the Google office in Cambridge, an Alphabet Workers Union (AWU) member, and a former student in Cambridge Public Schools.
“There are two reasons why the work that the CEA has done to get to this point of reaching a tentative agreement means a lot to me,” said Rahman. “One is as someone who grew up in Cambridge, went to Cambridge Public Schools, and has benefited a lot from very high quality educators, I really want to see teachers in Cambridge get treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. The second part is as a union member myself, it means a lot to me to be able to show my solidarity.”
When asked if he will be back to support the paraprofessionals, substitute teachers, and clerks in their own contract fight, Rahman said, “Not only will I be here supporting them, but I will do everything in my power to make sure that other AWU members are there in solidarity.”
This type of community support is essential for the CEA and other teachers unions to improve educator working conditions and therefore improve student learning conditions.
“I think the other thing that I would say is I was blown away and so excited for the future because of all the people who showed up for us,” said Montero. “Whether it was the PSL or the other unions in Cambridge or reporters at Harvard, it makes a world of difference.”